When the Right People and the Right Information Come Together, Expect a Masterpiece

“All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.”

The remarkable gentleman who said this quote, Arthur Aufderheide M.D. (1922-2013), certainly lived by these wise words.

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Aufderheide was a medical school professor at the University of Minnesota who founded an entirely new area of scientific research: paleopathology – the study of the spread of disease through the forensic analysis of mummies (think of it as CSI: Ancient Civilizations!). He actively pursued his research with true passion for 30 years, traveling the globe locating mummies and establishing best practices for their proper examination.

Dr. Aufderheide’s ground-breaking research was the perfect combination of his medical expertise with his personal passions for archaeology, outdoorsmanship and native world cultures. Simply put, he absolutely loved his work. His excitement and passion for his innovative research inspired his students and earned recognition from the global scientific community.

Dr. Aufderheide’s life work helps drive home two key points about success, meaningful work… and life:

First: Organizations with genuine passion for their mission will utilize technology and share information far more effectively than other companies.

Dr. Aufderheide’s career as a medical school professor was not his first. He had worked for decades as a hospital pathologist, a job he no longer found fulfilling. Had he opted to just count the days to early retirement, his remaining life work likely would have been mediocre at best. Instead, at the age of 55, he made a career change into academia, resulting in one heck of a “second act”: a highly fulfilling career and life.

Aufderheide’s tremendous passion for his work was key to successfully discover new insights from many far-flung sources of information that had been waiting for centuries to be discovered. Anyone else doing similar work just to blithely earn a paycheck surely would have made very few – if any – meaningful discoveries, much less establish a brand new field of scientific research.

Similarly, organizations with true passion for its mission will uncover more, better and faster business discoveries by collaboratively gaining new insight from big data analytics, enterprise search, enterprise knowledge management, and other silo-busting technologies. Workers are actively empowered by leadership to ask new questions about the business, while also being provided the advanced technology resources that enable them to find new answers.

Second: Organizations with a culture of genuine passion for their mission will outperform competitors that don’t.

Leaders with a true passion for their organization’s mission will insist on an open, positive company culture that enables everyone to pursue that mission to the fullest – free from company politics, turf wars or internal arguments.

Passionate leaders will also only hire people who will share their passion. At a recent roundtable event, startup exec John McEleney emphasized the need for start-ups to “have the right people on the bus” and keep mediocre players out of the organization by requiring any new potential hire to be referred by an existing employee.

Without a supportive company culture and proper hiring practices, an organization will end up with people who are just working for the money.

This all reminds me of Simon Sinek’s fantastic viral TEDx presentation – a must-watch (and well worth watching again!):

Well, that definitely describes the kind of organization I’d love to work for. How about you? 😉

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You Do Not Need Permission to Innovate

Bootleggers K turnI read a great blog post written by Brooke Allen describing how a chance encounter decades ago with an ex-Prohibition-era bootlegger provided a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.

The ex-bootlegger – Brooke Allen called him “Jeb” – began by chatting about such tricks of the bootlegging trade as the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic used to escape hot pursuit by police by quickly reversing direction.

When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, Jeb needed to find new work. He finally found a mundane job working as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he would think about how he could improve the drill press.

Finally, Jeb mustered up the courage to ask the factory owner if he could share his ideas:

After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”

The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question.”

… It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”

In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.

“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” Jeb told Allen. “But, I didn’t become [an inventor] until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.

Brooke Allen took away that key life lesson: You do not need permission to do the right thing. Knowing this simple fact is essential for any true innovation to take place. Innovation, by definition, is an act of “intelligent disobedience.” It is unafraid to question the status quo; it unashamedly asks, “What if…?”

I’d also add a big thumbs-up for the factory owner who had the sense to not only listen to Jeb’s idea, but to also encourage Jeb to discover new ideas and share the financial rewards with him. The owner demonstrated business sense that is lacking in too many corporate “leaders” today.

An empty suit of a “leader” probably would have just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without so much as a thank you (just like this example); or simply marched Jeb back to his drill press saying something like, “We don’t pay you to think!”

A bad boss can indeed go a long way to discourage innovation; however, that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need permission to innovate. Lousy leaders who think nothing upsets the status quo without their blessing are kidding themselves. Under their noses, innovations are taking place in the form of secret skunkworks projects, workarounds and hacks that enable workers to sidestep red tape and self-important gatekeepers while also keeping their personal sanity!

Gatekeepers and Workarounds

Now imagine how well such a company could perform if innovation wasn’t driven underground by its own “leaders.”

Bottom line, you do not need permission to freely assess the way things are and envision the way things could be. Recognizing this universal truth might be the bootlegger K-turn you need to make a clean getaway from a “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.

If you liked this post, you may also like:
“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python
The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers
Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Why the Question “Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller?” is a False Choice

I recently read an article posing the well-known sales question, Is Your Product a Vitamin or a Painkiller? by George Deeb. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to be selling a “painkiller” technology product that relieves acutely-felt, pervasive business problems, rather than a “vitamin” product that offers some lesser, more specialized value.

I agree with Deeb that it’s much harder to build a large, scalable business around vitamin products than painkiller products, but a product-as-painkiller is not the ultimate or best product offering either.

In other words, the question “Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller?” is a false choice – and businesses that rely on painkiller product revenue are at more risk than they might realize.

The issues of trying to sell a vitamin product are described quite well in Deeb’s article. But painkiller products have their own issues. For example, one of the most frequent and frustrating “competitors” to a painkiller product sale is “none of the above”. Much to many a sales manager’s chagrin, prospects often decide that while the business pain is real, alleviating it simply isn’t worth the effort, like Norm in this classic scene from Cheers:

Meanwhile, new enabling technologies march on: painkiller products that once required a huge capex for on-premise enterprise software, servers and services (CRM, marketing automation, legacy BI) are now offered inexpensively on a SaaS basis (SFDC, Marketo, GoodData) with more to come. More and more painkiller products are becoming available at lower “vitamin-level” cost and simplicity!

Another issue I have with painkiller products is they implicitly assume a business status quo. Consider Polaroid in the mid 90’s. Like so many other large companies, Polaroid jumped in with both feet into ERP, the ultimate painkiller technology of its time. Polaroid even won major awards for its SAP implementation. While Polaroid’s ERP no doubt lightened many operational pains by optimizing inventory, purchasing, quality control and such, meanwhile the company was failing miserably with new products and all but ignoring the deterioration of its instant photography market to digital cameras.

I recall reading a Polaroid executive praising the company’s new operational efficiency of its instant photography “core business.” Not long after, in 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy, with most of that “core business” long gone.

Clearly, while reducing business “pain” is important, such efforts are no substitute for the ultimate purpose of a business, as memorably described by Peter Drucker:

There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer… Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation.

And for decades, business technology has focused on operational efficiencies instead of serving as new platforms for innovation. Again, quoting Peter Drucker:

For top management, information technology has been a producer of data [for operational tasks]… Business success is based on something totally different: the creation of value and wealth.

This requires risk-taking decisions… on business strategy, on abandoning the old and innovating the new… the balance between the short term and the long term… These decisions are the true top management tasks.

The technology products that will reap the greatest financial rewards will be those that address those “true top management tasks”: innovation that creates new business value and wealth; such as

  • Advanced analytic platforms that reveal all-new insights into markets, products, customers and competitors
  • Gamefication platforms that motivate employees, customers and partners to want to take actions that mutually benefit the organization, themselves and other stakeholders
  • Customer/prospect engagement technologies that personalize and optimize every experience with your organization, whether online or in-person, across all channels (particularly mobile)

Artwork by: BTimony (click to see original)These and other new technologies designed to enable innovation make up a third category of products that go far beyond painkiller or vitamin products.

So what should we call this third product category? Maybe… “steroids”? Nah, don’t think so…

Perhaps “miracle drug”? No…

What about… “Popeye’s Spinach”?!

What do you think?

Big Data Wisdom, Courtesy of Monty Python

Monty Python and the Holy GrailNote: This article was co-written by Mike Urbonas and Rik Tamm-Daniels.

One of our favorite parts of the hilarious 1975 King Arthur parody, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the “Bridge of Death” scene: If a knight answered the bridge keeper’s three questions, he could safely cross the bridge; if not, he would be catapulted into… the Gorge of Eternal Peril!

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to most of King Arthur’s knights…

The knights were either stumped by a surprise trivia question like, “What is the capital of Assyria?” – or responded too indecisively when asked, “What is your favorite color?”

Fortunately when King Arthur was asked, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” he wisely sought further details: “What do you mean – an African or European swallow?” The stunned bridge keeper said, “Uh, I don’t know that… AAAGH!” Breaking his own rule, the bridge keeper was thrown over into the gorge, freeing King Arthur to continue his quest for the Holy Grail.

Many organizations are on “Big Data Holy Grail” quests of their own, looking to deliver game-changing analytics, only to find themselves in a “boil-the-ocean” Big Data project that “after 24 months of building… has no real value.” Unfortunately, many organizations have rushed into hasty Hadoop implementations, fueled by a need to ‘respond’ to Big Data and ‘not fall behind.’

Read the rest of this article on SmartData Collective.

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

A while back, Jeff Hayden wrote a clever article for Inc.: The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons from classic sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the iconic British comedy team.

Not among Jeff Hayden’s top ten “business advice by Monty Python” selections was my #1 choice: The Argument Clinic, one of Monty Python’s most popular comedy sketches ever. I believe this skit also does a great job portraying the ideal business environment… for killing innovation and creativity, that is! Have a look:

Monty Python’s Michael Palin actually pays for the ‘privilege’ of having an argument in this sketch. Meanwhile, too many real-world businesses with poor company cultures are basically paying their managers to routinely engage in arguments (turf battles, verbal sparring, flame mail wars, etc.) with others in the company!

Such misguided organizations will also have plenty of de facto Verbal Abuse departments (“Stupid git!”) to go along with the endless arguments – all of which are sure to give workers plenty of headaches (though hopefully not from a literal wooden mallet to the head).

Simply put, constant arguing is the opposite of collaborating.

As noted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Sony lost the personal music market to Apple and iTunes because its divisions were too busy constantly arguing with each other. Sony could never “get its hardware and software and content divisions to row in unison.”

[A music executive told Isaacson he] “had spent two years working with Sony, and it hadn’t gone anywhere… Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.”

Indeed, Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service (emphasis added).

Arguments can also be induced when workers feel compelled to look over their shoulders instead of working and collaborating openly with others. For one very big example, it is hard to imagine why Marissa Mayer would have enacted the long-discredited HR practice of “stack ranking” (aka “rank and yank”) at Yahoo, given the well-documented havoc it had already wreaked at Microsoft.

Back in 2012, I was stunned to read that Microsoft, led by then-CEO Steve Ballmer, had for years been using stack ranking, which “forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor,” as explained by Kurt Eichenwald in his landmark article, Microsoft’s Lost Decade. Back then, stack ranking “crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.”

About the same time Yahoo was ramping up its stack ranking agenda (which has so far resulted in two wrongful termination lawsuits), Microsoft finally eliminated it shortly after Ballmer’s departure – a decision that didn’t come a moment too soon:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies” (emphasis added).

Time spent by workers, managers, departments, business divisions, etc. on internal arguments and other infighting is time not spent fighting competitors outside the company. Time wasted developing “innovations” in self-preservation, co-worker character assassination and other manipulative office politics is time not spent innovating new products, marketing messages and other creative solutions. The business costs and negative personal consequences of such dysfunctional behavior are massive.

Hmm, I think this article has gotten a bit too serious. Let’s close, then, with one more Monty Python“business lesson,” this time regarding customer service gone very wrong!

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

I came across a success quote on Twitter invoking a door metaphor that I couldn’t, um, “unlock” the point of.

Fellow Bentley University alum and sales operations blogger Marci Reynolds re-tweeted the quote in question:

I like quotes but I just didn’t get this one: Why would the “door(way) to success” swing only outward and not inward? Does it matter? As long as it opens, right?

Is the point of the quote that being extroverted that is, outwardly focused – is essential to succeed? I hope not, because, as author and TED 2012 speaker Susan Cain compellingly argues, that’s simply not true.

I urge you to listen to Susan Cain’s entire TED talk, but the gist of her presentation is that too often our schools and workplaces are seemingly structured based on the assumption that the best students and workers are extroverts – outgoing types who are in their element working in teams and being “productive.” Unfortunately, few breakthroughs in technology, research or other areas of endeavor have been created by committee.

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation…Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members…

And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsized risks — which is something we might all favor nowadays…(I)nteresting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas…

And groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

Susan Cain’s points are well supported by scads of research; Jim Collins’ Good to Great insights into the personality traits of the top “level 5” leaders immediately come to mind: level 5 leaders are often unassuming, self-effacing and display introverted tendencies – the opposite of what Collins calls the “corrosive celebrity CEO.” Yes, introverts can make excellent leaders. It is a serious mistake for extroverts to believe that introverts merely work in a vacuum without input from others.

Susan Cain also goes out of her way to make clear that she does not disparage extroverted people in any way (she mentions that she’s married to an extrovert). Doing so would be plain dumb. Rather, Susan Cain’s key point is that it’s critical for institutions to set up both extraverts and introverts for success by equipping them with the differing environments they need for success.

By helping to ensure the organization’s “door of success” does indeed open both outward and inward, the organization’s will significantly expand its potential for extraordinary “Good to Great” levels of success. Organizations that don’t get this will find its collective door of success frustratingly difficult to open indeed…

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Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

I really liked this tweet by Sandy Kemsley that noting someone’s Twitter gaffe clearly intended to comment on the need to monitor employee sentiment.

Just as ‘many a truth is said in jest,’ many a truth can also be said by mistake as well: companies should monitor – and avoid – employee “sediment.” Doing so will help ensure an environment of innovation and free-flow of new ideas.

Somehow ’employee sediment‘ triggered a memory (from ‘sediment’ to ‘dirt’ … ‘soil’ … ‘plants’) of an article I read about “potted plant syndrome” in the workplace:

There was a boss who complained that everyone around him was a “potted plant.” He couldn’t understand why his managers wouldn’t take charge of an idea or come up with solutions. In his management meetings, if a manager suggested how to handle a problem or come up with solution, he would tell them how they could do it better or differently. Or, he would argue that they were wrong.

He didn’t realize he was killing commitment and innovation.

The boss was a one-person idea prevention department. His staff was tired of standing out with an idea only to get it shot down, so they stopped offering them. The oblivious boss had sown a staff of “potted plants.”

Company-Potted-Plant-Staff-Meeting

And now a quick true story of employee ‘sediment’…

A business professional (we’ll call him “Rick”) met with a company leader to discuss how he wanted a certain SaaS tool to work. Rick listened and asked questions, teasing out from the leader the specific desired outcomes and results he was looking for. In the course of the conversation, the leader drew his thoughts and answers to the questions on a whiteboard.

The next day, Rick presented the plan describing how the actual production implementation would work, delivering the end results the leader had described. Rick’s plan included a time-saving idea involving a simple update to certain existing data that would provide the desired end results much more quickly with fewer workflow steps. Even better, Rick also noted a flaw in one of the leader’s primary assumptions as to how the solution should work; however, Rick’s proposed data update would resolve that issue as well.

Instead of being pleased, the “leader” was angry!  “I told you exactly what I wanted!” he sputtered. “What is this?!”

leader-air-quotesAnd only then did Rick realize the unfortunate reality that the “leader” never wanted Rick to propose an innovative solution; no, the “leader” wanted Rick to merely replicate his desires, wishes and assumptions, exactly as instructed on his whiteboard… flawed assumptions be damned.

Did this “leader” want fries with that?!

Keeping his incredulousness – and that snarky fries remark – to himself, Rick simply obliged and completed the project to the “leader’s” exact – and faulty – specifications. Sure enough, the system processes the “leader” had mandated proved to be so needlessly complicated, the end users rarely followed them.

Not long afterwards, Rick, not terribly interested in becoming a “potted plant,” chose to move on… to much greener pastures.

If a company doesn’t want “potted plants” for employees, they should stop burying their ideas.

Monitor employee sediment, indeed.

If you liked this article, you may also like:

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers